Friday, May 30, 2014

What Makes a Hero

It is often times in epics and heroic stories that the protagonist and hero of the tale is an orphan. In Beowulf, the hero is raised in the court of his Uncle Hygelac, and barely anything is known of this soon-to-be hero’s upbringing and childhood other than his heroic qualities as a youth. It can be argued that Beowulf is indeed one of the most iconic heroes in literature so it is not a surprise that many heroes in literature post-Beowulf follow this same pattern of being an orphaned and being raised by a family member instead. When the reader meets Aragorn in Tolkien’s work, his identity is shrouded and only later on in the story do we learn that he is a great King, destined to reign over man, and of course, he was orphaned as a young child. Similarly, the other obvious hero in The Lord of the Rings is Frodo who also lost his parents as a young child and was raised by his family member Bilbo. What is the point of giving heroes this obscure parentage and background? What is the significance of a hero with no living parents? It can be argued that the most obvious heroes in The Lord of the Rings do not have parents in order to establish larger-than-life heroic character qualities and a mystical presence.
         In class, we discussed the concept of various categories of love including love between family members, between friends, between creatures of different species, and of course romantic love. The idea of parentage was also touched upon, and the perception that when two people fall in love, they get married and have children. We came to the conclusion that children are in fact a form of sub creation, and this of course makes the parents creators. This in itself gives parentage and children an almost almighty quality, but once parents are taken out of the picture the child seems all the more divine. Therefore, heroes without parents known to the reader seem to have come from nowhere, and this gives them a mystical quality because their origin is not familiar to the reader. The two biggest examples in the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn and Frodo, are almost expected to be heroes because of their ambiguous childhood and parentage. However, only Aragorn is able to achieve what he set out to do, which was to defeat Sauron and marry the girl he loves, the girl he wants to fight for. Frodo has a more difficult time achieving his goals, and this could be because of his lack of love for another. Of course he has love for Bilbo as well as the other characters, but he loses sense of this love when handling the ring and attempting to destroy it. It is because of this shortcoming that Frodo loses sense of his heroic purpose. While Aragorn knows who he is fighting for, Frodo often loses sight of those who he loves and this causes him to become less and less heroic.
         Everybody knows that Aragorn is a hero. He is on an adventure to save the world and win the heart of the beautiful elf princess, a classic almost clichéd outlook in all senses of the word hero. Flieger calls Aragorn a “traditional epic/romance hero, larger than life, a leader, fighter, lover, healer,” (Zimbardo and Isaacs, 124). However, she also identifies the question of whether the audience can relate to this hero, and she argues that this is in fact impossible because “He is above the common herd…we are not like him, and we know it,” (Zimbardo and Isaacs, 124). Aragorn is literally an unbelievable character in Tolkien’s tales. One thing that’s interesting about him though is the more we learn about him, his past, his real name, his connections, he becomes less and less familiar with us, the audience. It is significant that Aragorn’s parentage is unfamiliar to the reader as well, especially since he is semi-divine. Because we know very little of his ancestry and family, Aragorn seems especially unknown and magical and therefore supernatural, as if he was born into this destiny of saving Middle Earth.

         The other main hero of the stories, Frodo, is also of a vague background. After having lost both of his parents as a young child, he is raised by Bilbo and eventually becomes Bilbo’s heir. This also gives a vague past and therefore one of the main qualities of being a hero, but as the story progresses Frodo shows less and less of classic heroic tendencies. He was reluctant at the start of the journey as well, perceived as the little guy and the common man and therefore extremely relatable to the audience, but as the ring overpowers him more and more he becomes less heroic in representation. Flieger argues that Frodo’s great battle is not that of destroying the ring, but he is “fighting his great battle not against darkness without but against darkness within,” (Zimbardo and Isaacs, 144). It is Sam’s love that battles this darkness. Sam is also undoubtedly a hero in this tale, just not in the romantic sense. It is Sam’s love for Frodo, Rosie, and the Shire that qualifies him to be heroic and fight for who and what he loves. Sam takes this journey voluntarily, and it is out of love for Frodo that he protects him. It is Sam’s love for Frodo that over and over again saves him, and “Sam’s love and Gollum’s hate become millstones between which Frodo is eventually broken – both victor and vanquished” (Zimabard and Isaacs, 144). So although Frodo is a hero in the romantic sense, an orphan from a clouded background who goes on a trip to save what he loves, it is Sam’s love that proves to be what is most heroic.

--Elizabeth Quintero


  1. Interestingly, we do know who Sam's father is. How does this fit into your reading of the role of orphans as heroes? (I think you are right about orphans having a somewhat divine quality, since their human parentage has been obscured.) RLFB

  2. Good question to ask - and I do agree with your answer to some extent. I wouldn't necessarily say that the removal of a parent or both parents establishes the child as one that is divine, but instead turns them into an underdog figure of sorts - parents are there to provide unyielding support to their children, and without that support, it supposedly puts the child at a disadvantage. Though this distinction is usually muddled with the presence of an uncle figure (Bilbo for Frodo, Ned Stark for Jon Snow, Ben Kenobi for Luke), as the uncle still provides support though is not the actual parent.

    I also wonder what the relationship between orphans and villains is in literature, and how this would change alter your argument in any way. Unfortunately in Lord of the Rings most of the villains are ancient and their backstories are never revealed, so I'm not sure that would be the best example. Actually, I'm struggling to think of many (or any) examples of orphan villains - maybe this is because villain origins are not as often delved into as much as hero origins in an attempt to keep them mysterious, and therefore scarier? I'm not sure.

    And a related (but twisted) side story - my older sister picked up on this trend as heroes as orphans when she was about four (Annie was her favorite musical for a time) and on several occasions asked my mother if she could be on orphan. Needless to say my mother didn't take it well.


  3. One of the points that you address in your post is the idea of love as a motivator for a hero's actions, citing Aragorn's quest for Arwyn and citing Frodo as an example of failure in this category. However, when I consider the heroes of the Fellowship, I see their heroism as something made possible only by a love for one another that enables them to support one another to overcome obstacles that would have overcome them had they been alone. We see these networks develop at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, when the Fellowship is broken. Frodo and Sam support and motivate one another throughout their journey; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli support each other throughout theirs; and Merry and Pippin support each other throughout their trials. There are numerous points throughout the adventure that one or another would have failed for want of the support of their companions, and it is at these moments that we see great moments of heroism.

    N. Malaqai Vasuqez